Many people start gambling as an enjoyable hobby by themselves or with others, but over time the pursuit of the thrill makes them gamble higher sums, get more desperate to win money back, and gradually reduce their self-control and willpower.
Even if it’s not a substance, like alcohol or drugs,gambling can still create a very similar dependence on the activity and cravings for psychological stimulation. Gambling addiction can destroy lives, and learning the signs and symptoms is the first essential step to prevent that from happening.
When Does Gambling Become Compulsive and Problem Gambling?
There is a fine line between gambling as a recreational activity and a hobby and becoming addicted to the point where it harms your life and that of your family and loved ones.
One of the most visible signs of gambling becoming compulsive and dangerous is when you stop being in control. For example, casual and rational gamblers set a limit on how much they will spend during the night and what is the absolute limit they are willing to part with. In contrast, someone with compulsive gambling behaviour will irrationally try to get their money back and desperately believe they are close to a reward.
Another visible sign of gambling addiction is the reason behind you doing the activity. If you or a loved one started out of love for the hobby because it was entertaining and could be done as a social activity from time to time, then there isn’t harm. However, if gambling turns into a constant chase of thrills, or a way to cope with and mask issues at home, at work, or in your life in general, then that is likely a sign of you developing a gambling addiction.
Signs and symptoms of compulsive gambling disorder to watch out for:
- Spending a significant amount of time preoccupied with gambling activities
- Obsessing over ways to get more money that you can gamble
- Gambling with higher and higher bets to get the same exhilarating and empowering feeling
- Inability to cut back or stop gambling altogether
- Relapse after a few days or weeks after you tried to stop gambling
- Spending more than you can afford on gambling without considering the risks to you and your family
- Inability to stop gambling no matter how many times you’ve lost
- Rationalising and convincing yourself that you will win in the next game and get back lost money
- Using gambling to cope with issues at home, stress, mental health issues and dissatisfaction with life
- Getting dismissive and defensive when talking about the issue
- Relying on family, friends and other loved ones to bail you out when suffering heavy loses
- Lying about the amount you gamble
Why Do We Need to Know the Symptoms of Problem Gambling
Spotting the difference between regular gambling for fun and a compulsive gambling disorder can be challenging. Knowing whether you or a loved one has a gambling problem can help you take the necessary action quickly before the situation worsens and causes further damage.
Gambling problems don’t happen in isolation, their impact is felt by everyone nearby, not only the individual with compulsive behaviour.
If you are struggling with a gambling addiction, then this will likely put a financial strain on your family’s budget, as funds are channelled toward fueling the addiction instead of meeting basic needs. Conflicts are likely to arise, and feelings will be hurt if you are unable to confront that there is a serious issue.
Being aware of the signs and acting as quickly as possible can save you lots of money that would have been wasted gambling, it can also reduce the number of conflicts and tensions in the family, which affect every person’s mental health negatively. Finally, the sooner a gambling problem stops, the less likely it is for the habit to be normalised and for someone else in the family to pick it up.
Symptoms of Compulsive Behaviours
Compulsive behaviours are characterised by an unshakeable and overwhelming obsession over an object or subject and a significant or total lack of control when pursuing that obsession. For example, a person suffering from compulsive gambling will have intrusive thoughts about the activity, fantasising about winning, pondering how to get more money for gambling, and feeling restless when unable to gamble.
Symptoms of compulsive behaviour:
- Obsessing over an activity, subject, or an object
- Unwanted and intrusive thoughts about the obsession
- Feeling a sense of thrill and excitement over the obsession
- Getting stressed and anxious around the obsession
- Repetitive patterns of behaviour which the person feels forced to perform
- Lack of control over what you are doing
- Feeling pushed toward obsession in times of stress, discontent and unhappiness
Emotional Signs of Compulsive Gambling
Many people falsely believe that gambling can not be addictive because, unlike drugs and alcohol, it doesn’t create physical dependence. After all, it’s an activity, not a substance you can inhale, swallow or inject. However, many people can develop a psychological dependence on gambling.
The act of gambling is a very exciting and exhilarating experience for many people because games are full of tension, high risks, and the chance for gigantic rewards. In many casinos, everything from the design of the games to the atmosphere is also designed to get you in the mood and keep you playing. As a result, gambling can evoke intense emotions and change brain chemistry due to the massive release of feel-good chemicals like dopamine.
Emotional signs of compulsive gambling:
- Feeling anxious, stress and depressed if you are not gambling
- Feeling devastated and broken when you lose in gambling
- Experiencing a powerful thrill whenever you pay
- Being unable to stop gambling no matter what
- Feeling restless and frustrated when you can’t gamble
- Using gambling as a coping mechanism for other issues and conditions
Behavioural and Social Symptoms of Problem Gambling
The intense cravings to keep gambling, so you remain happy and excited, the unhealthy way gambling hides emotional and psychological issues, and the irrational need to keep your addiction going can change a person’s behaviour in very problematic ways. As a result, you may get in conflicts with loved ones, become more impulsive than before, and shift your priorities to favour gambling both in and outside of the casino.
Behavioural and social symptoms of problem gambling:
- Gambling for longer than planned, exceeding money limits, and placing bets without the money to do so
- Abandoning other hobbies and passions in favour of gambling
- Asking for, borrowing or even stealing money to maintain gambling addiction
- Ignoring or dismissing the seriousness of the gambling issue when talking with loved ones
- Loss of productivity, focus and a general fall in performance in university or at work
- Constant talking and visible obsession over the topic of gambling
- Trying to hide just how much is being spent on gambling
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Can You Recognise a Problem Gambler Without Knowing Them?
Yes, even without being very close with another person, you can make educated guesses about a potential problem with gambling based on their behaviour, the conversations you have, and their performance during recreational activities, social events, university, or at work. For example, a person with a gambling problem may talk a lot about their hobby, may report mental health issues like anxiety and depression, and may struggle at work.
It’s essential to note that the point of recognising a problem with gambling is not to blame, stigmatise, and isolate the individual. People don’t decide to get addicted on a whim, very often, it happens accidentally or in a desperate attempt to cope with other issues like stress, trauma, and mental health issues.
Recognising gambling addiction in others should be a tool for good, bringing greater awareness about the symptoms and signs so that those struggling can receive the support and guidance they need to overcome their illness.
Are All Problem Gamblers Male?
Current research suggests that men are seven and a half times more likely to become problem gamblers. Theories link the higher likelihood of impulsiveness, risk-taking, and struggle to express discontent and struggles as a potential explanation  .
However, just because current theories show such results doesn’t mean that compulsive gambling is not an issue for women. Especially since many academics are calling out that previous research is biased toward males, making the results not representative of what is happening within society and ignoring the unique struggles of women with gambling .
- Wong, Gloria, et al. “Examining Gender Differences for Gambling Engagement and Gambling Problems among Emerging Adults.” Journal of Gambling Studies, U.S. National Library of Medicine, June 2013, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4736715/.
- Håkansson, Anders, and Carolina Widinghoff. “Gender Differences in Problem Gamblers in an Online Gambling Setting: PRBM.” Psychology Research and Behavior Management, Dove Press, 18 Aug. 2020, https://www.dovepress.com/gender-differences-in-problem-gamblers-in-an-online-gambling-setting-peer-reviewed-fulltext-article-PRBM#:~:text=Problem%20gambling%2C%20including%20the%20diagnostic,and%20in%20the%20clinical%20setting.
- McCarthy, Simone, et al. “Women’s Gambling Behaviour, Product Preferences, and Perceptions of Product Harm: Differences by Age and Gambling Risk Status.” Harm Reduction Journal, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 24 Apr. 2018, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5916584/.